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‘Life of Pi’ full of great acting, superb visuals

Published: Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 11:47 a.m. CST

Like most movies, “Life of Pi” is based on a bestselling novel. I read Yann Martel’s masterpiece when it first came out in 2001 and even recommended it on a winter reading list a few months later.

But I never envisioned it becoming a movie.

Not so much because I didn’t think it was a great story — it is — but because I feared it could never be truly captured on film like it had in ink-on-paper format. And, even after I heard it was finally going to be made, I had my doubts.

Sure, director Ang Lee could transform mere actors into wuxia (Chinese for “martial hero” a — the traditional term for “kung fu movies”) legends. But “Life of Pi” doesn’t call for wire flight. Any CGI used in the film had to be nearly invisible to the audience, or the whole thing is off.

Thankfully, I find myself pleasantly surprised with the final product.

Sure, there are moments — if you’re really looking for them — when you catch the CGI in action. But most of the time, you find yourself thinking back to earlier films, like scenes of a young Alex stranded on a desert island, desperately trying to tame a young black stallion.

And then, WHAM!

You’re snapped back to the fact that behind every fantasy is a healthy dose of cold reality. After all, we’re talking about a story in which a boy is the lone human survivor of a shipwreck who spends 278 days at sea with only the provisions of the lifeboat and his own ingenuity to sustain himself.

And in the end, you’re left with a choice to make.

Can a teenage boy and a Bengal tiger really learn to live with one another in the tight confines of a 26-foot lifeboat? Or was Richard Parker a creation of a young man’s mind to wash away the horrors and tragedies he had to witness as the result of a shipwreck?

The version you choose to believe, I think, says more about the viewer than the filmmaker.

Suraj Sharma is brilliant as the younger Pi, no longer a child, but not yet a man, who finds himself a castaway in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Irrfan Khan was already a screen legend in his own right, largely to Indian/Bollywood audiences, but proved why as the older, reflective Pi.

The surprise of the film is the acting of Rafe Spall, who has otherwise starred in more than a dozen forgettable flicks ranging from “Green Street Hooligans” to “Hot Fuzz.” In this film, however, he plays the critical role of connecting the audience with the man Pi has become; the gateway to the story, if you will.

The visuals range from stunning views of a placid Mid-Pacific to breathtaking scenes of the bioluminescent nighttime on the ocean. Sure, most of them are “created,” whether by computer algorithm or by tricky camera angle, but they’re incredible nonetheless.

I highly encourage you to see it for yourself.

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